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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

Being A More Mindful Principal

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Key strategies can help a new leader make better decisions—and strengthen school culture.

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LeadershipSchool Culture
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As a new principal, or even a veteran starting in a new building, you are charged with creating a culture where teachers and students feel they belong and where joyful teaching and learning occur at high levels. But a leader's ability to focus on this important charge will be tested daily through stressors that demand a response, such as social media posts, emails, parent phone calls, and student discipline, to name a few.
Principals make roughly 300 decisions per day, ranging from signing teacher absence paperwork to making student discipline calls (McDaniel & Gruenert, 2018). This balancing act of responding to demands while trying to understand various perspectives can lead to "decision fatigue," resulting in poor decision making. Without the groundedness and focused attention needed for making sound decisions, a new leader can find themselves making decisions mindlessly, going through the motions while overlooking critical information necessary to understand the situation and see alternative perspectives and solutions.

The Power of Mindful Leadership

As a school administrator and a professor of educational administration who have studied practices that strengthen leadership, we'll share some good news: Mindful principal leadership supports good decision making and positive school culture. And when principals intentionally focus on their decision making, they also increase teacher effectiveness and student achievement (Kearney et al., 2013).

The pressure and complexity of the principalship require innovative ways of thinking. Increasing mindfulness is one way to get to better thinking.

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We use the terms mindful and mindfulness here in a slightly different sense than they're often talked about. Researcher Wayne Hoy and colleagues (2004) define principal mindfulness as the extent to which principals engage in the following:
  • Regularly look for problems.
  • Prevent problems from becoming crises.
  • Avoid oversimplifying events.
  • Focus on teaching and learning.
  • Show resilience.
  • Defer to experts when they don't know the answer.
Since the purpose of education is to improve learning (Reeves & Eaker, 2019), a principal must implement strategies that create strong conditions for learning. Increasing people's sense of belonging is an important part of creating those conditions. What we know about belonging in schools predominately focuses on students. However, teachers' sense of belonging—the extent to which an individual teacher feels personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school environment—is also key. A healthy sense of belonging can be a protective factor against teacher burnout and teachers leaving the profession—especially crucial now. We've found through our research that mindful leadership also helps foster this sense of belonging among teachers (see below).
Being A More Mindful Principal Sidebar
Being a mindful leader is also important because the current education climate is complex. School leaders must find ways to reconnect students, staff, and communities while balancing decisions on polarizing issues such as critical race theory, equity questions, and safety concerns. The choices principals make strongly influence their school, for better or worse (McGuigan & Hoy, 2006), and the pressure and complexity of the role require innovative ways of thinking. Increasing mindfulness is one way to develop better thinking. Amid the mental chaos of the principalship, staying mindful can enable a leader to intentionally focus on situations and execute a calmer, more thoughtful approach.

So How Do I Become More Mindful?

Understanding mindfulness is an important first step. But school leaders must also implement strategies that will support them in becoming mindful leaders. Principals who want to make this shift to mindfulness—and thus enhance their practice and create a stronger school culture—can use two key strategies: (1) practicing awareness and reflection, especially of one's own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and (2) using intentional questioning to build the mindfulness of school teams.

Practicing Awareness and Reflection

To become aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses, a school leader must ask those they work with for their perceptions. A leader could have staff members respond to a survey at the end of the first semester and/or school year. One good measure to use is a mindfulness scale, as shown in Figure 1 (based on ideas from Hoy et al., 2004). Results from such a survey can help a school leader better understand how teachers perceive their decision-making skills, openness to others' views, and level of trustworthiness, enabling them to see areas of strength and areas where they need to grow.
Being A More Mindful Principal Figure 1
Keeping a reflective journal is a good way to practice reflection and can help leaders think about various concepts, events, or actions they've taken over time, to help them gain insight and self-awareness and enhance their metacognitive awareness (Thorpe, 2004). With more awareness of their leadership tendencies and their strengths and weaknesses as a leader, a principal is better equipped to act mindfully. Using a reflective learning journal with the prompts listed below—from the work of Kearney et al. (2013) and Hoy et al. (2004)—could benefit principals on their journey toward enhancing mindfulness.
Prompts for regularly looking for problems/ preventing crises:
  • What problem(s) is the school encountering now?
  • What is the source of the problem(s)?
  • How might we remedy the problem(s)?
  • What unintended consequences may arise because of trying this solution?
Prompts for avoiding oversimplifying:
  • What am I noticing?
  • What am I unintentionally ignoring?
Prompts for focusing on teaching and learning:
  • How am I intentionally focusing on teaching and learning?
  • What data am I using to inform my decisions? Why?
  • Are there any sources of data that I am not considering?
Prompts for showing resilience:
  • What obstacles and challenges did I overcome today?
  • How did I do this?
Prompts for deferring to experts:
  • Who did I collaborate with today or who will I collaborate with in the future to inform my decision-making process?
  • Who knows more about a topic than I do? How can they help?
  • Whose voice am I not listening to? Why not?
Prompts for perception of overall leadership:
  • What are some areas where I can grow as a leader?
  • What are my strengths as a leader?
We understand that time is of the essence for principals. However, if leaders don't prioritize time for their own reflection and growth, they will continually be in a reactive mode, less able to make good decisions or intentionally support a positive school culture. We recommend that school leaders block out 15 minutes once a week on their calendar (no meetings, no interruptions, devices on silent) and use that time to respond to these reflective learning journal prompts. When reflection reveals a principal hasn't been engaging in a particular aspect of mindful leadership—perhaps they haven't been collaborating with others—they can make a plan to do so more often. This small investment in becoming more mindful can ultimately have a large payout in terms of better decisions and a stronger school culture.

Using Questioning to Build Others' Mindfulness

Besides strengthening their own mindfulness, school leaders can also focus on enhancing the mindfulness of colleagues by incorporating mindful reflection into team meetings. Questions could be pulled from the reflective learning journal prompts just listed and reworded for a team. Two additional questions are good for increasing a team's mindfulness:
  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it that way?
These questions encourage thoughtful reflection and can increase an individual's flexibility, focus, and openness to new ideas. For instance, we have used these questions to help teacher leaders discuss why and how they assign and grade homework. Those discussions resulted in a shift from daily assigned homework to less frequent homework that was more purposefully assigned and specific to content goals. This let teachers focus more on specific feedback to students, supporting their growth.

When principals intentionally focus on their decision making, they enhance school culture and increase teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

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These practices for building awareness, reflection, and questioning all support mindfulness. Two benefits of these strategies are that they are cost-effective and they focus on small-scale, individual changes. Such minor changes can have a positive ripple effect throughout an organization.

Spreading Positive Influence

Understanding that being a more mindful leader—using the strategies described here or others—enhances decision making and teachers' sense of belonging helps principals lead in ways that increase their own effectiveness and that help teachers feel part of something meaningful. The influence principals have on the psychological and emotional state of teachers and others they work with should not be understated. It's critical that principals, especially new ones, approach each day mindfully so they can support teaching and learning at high levels.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Consider the mindfulness practices described in the article. Which of these do you do regularly? Which might you need to do more?

➛ What is your principal's decision-making style? How does that style affect your work? How does it affect your school culture?

References

Hoy, W. K., Gage III, C. Q., & Tarter, C. J. (2004). Theoretical and empirical foundations of mindful schools. Educational organizations, policy and reform: Research and measurement, pp. 305–335. Information Age.

Hoy, W. K., Gage III, C. Q., & Tarter, C. J. (2006). School mindfulness and faculty trust: Necessary conditions for each other? Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(2), 236–255.

Kearney, W. S., Kelsey, C., & Herrington, D. (2013). Mindful leaders in highly effective schools: A mixed-method application of Hoy's M-scale. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(3), 316–335.

McDaniel, T. P., & Gruenert, S. (2018, June). The making of a WEAK principal. School Administration.

McGuigan, L., & Hoy, W. K. (2006). Principal leadership: Creating a culture of academic optimism to improve achievement for all students. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 5(3), 203–229.

Reeves, D. B., & Eaker, R. E. (2019). 100-day leaders: Turning short-term wins into long-term success in schools. Solution Tree Press.

Thorpe, K. (2004). Reflective learning journals: From concept to practice. Reflective Practice, 5(3), 327–343.

Rob Russell is an assistant principal at New Albany High School in New Albany, Ohio, and a former science teacher.

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